Sweetpea Journey #1: First Steps

If you didn’t know, I’m getting a custom-made bike from Sweetpea Bicycles. Natalie Ramsland builds these bikes specifically for women, one of just two women frame builders in the United States (the other is Luna Cycles). Many people I know are interested in hearing about the process, so I hope to be blogging about it each step of the way. Read the series here. And awaaay we go!

My Sweetpea journey started in Spring 2008 when I heard word that my credit union, Unitus, was going to start offering bike loans. A long-time Unitus customer, I agreed to be the guinea pig for the program, and when talking to the woman developing the program, said that if I could choose anything, I would prefer to get my bike from Portland’s own Sweetpea Bicycles. The woman said if I could convince them to sign on to the loan program I could do it, and one short phone call later, it looked like my wildest dreams would be coming true.

Meanwhile, as the details of my loan got worked out, I sent in my $500 deposit to Natalie to hold my place in her wait list, which at that point was approximately a year and a half. This was May 2008. Immediately after sending in my deposit, I wrote out a lengthy description of what I was thinking I wanted my bike to be, to do, and to look like.

Because the bike loan program was a pretty new idea for the United States, there was a fair amount of press I was in (including here and here). It gave me a chance to get some good attention for bikes, an awesome local bike builder, and my favorite credit union, all in one!

In the following months, I saw Natalie now and again, and sometimes conversation would touch upon my bike, but usually not. My bicycling enthusiast friends would ask me a couple of times a month how much longer I’d have to wait–so occasionally I would check in and try to get a time estimate. As much as possible, I tried to abide by their philosophy to “practice zen-like calm and patience,” but man is it hard when you see your builder and/or her husband on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Natalie got some national exposure in Bicycling Magazine and Outdoors, and her waiting list doubled in size.

Finally, when I was recovering from a cold in the middle of August 2009, I got an email from Natalie suggesting we set up an appointment for my first fitting, as it was almost go time!

When I scheduled my fit appointment at Bicycle Fitting Services, her preferred fitter, I learned that it’s actually a two-appointment process. The first appointment happens before your bike is fabricated. Over the course of two hours, as I sit on the top of a completely, totally adjustable faux bike, Natalie and the fitter (in my case, Stephanie) get all sorts of measurements and information. The fact that I have a wonky pelvis and sometimes my legs are two different lengths (as much as an inch and a half at times!) is important. The second appointment is done after the bike has been fabricated, for final fit and micro-adjustments.

Last weekend I biked the hour and a half from my house to Sweetpea World Headquarters, where Natalie and I drank tea, hung out and ended up chatting a bit about my bike. She had me try a specific set of bars she was thinking would work well, and they did–but she needed to order a pair before my fitting, meaning I’d have to delay the appointment a bit. In this process, I learned, it’s ideal to come to your first fit with the bars, saddle, and pedals (the three contact points) you think you’ll be using on the final bike. I already knew I’d be using a Brooks B17 Champion Special saddle, and flat pedals, because I don’t use SPDs and haven’t really enjoyed my experience with toe clips. Natalie ordered the Nitton all-rounder, which you can see on a bike here.

Soon after the bars got ordered, I got a flurry of emails from Natalie through her project management web site. I soon discovered this site is communication central, where ideas are tossed around between client and builder. Boilerplate information about paint is posted, JPGs of other bikes are uploaded to have a common frame of reference, and discussions about design ideas are archived in threads to make things as efficient as possible.

Next: my first fit appointment this afternoon. I’m bringing a camera, so hopefully I’ll be able to get a photo or two!

This is the first post in a series about the journey to getting my Sweetpea Bicycle.

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